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Laugh, nurse, laugh!


Victor Borge, the famous Danish comedian, pianist, and conductor once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Infusing laughter and humor into your work life is a powerful tool that can improve communication, reduce stress, foster cohesiveness, and boost overall performance and staff engagement. (See It starts with a smile.)

Key takeaways
– Laughter reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and is good for the heart.
– Using humor to have fun at work builds a sense of community within the team.

When was the last time you heard someone say that he or she didn’t feel good when laughing? Probably never, right? The physical and psychological benefits of laughter are well documented in the literature. A hearty laugh shuts down the release of the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the release of endorphins, reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and pain and improves the immune system and cardiovascular function. When it’s shared, laughter binds people together, increasing happiness and intimacy. And humor can help shift perspective, allowing everyone to view situations in a more realistic, less threatening light that enhances teamwork and diffuses conflict.

Is it okay to find humor in nursing?

Wanting to bring laughter and humor into the serious nature of what we do every day may seem inappropriate, but situationally appropriate humor and playful communication triggers positive feelings and fosters emotional connections. These connections create bonds that buffer stress, disagreement, and disappointment and heal resentment and hurt.

Healthcare providers have higher stress levels and complaints than employees of any other field. Nurses are continually challenged by the physical nature of the profession, which requires the ability to work with multiple complex patients and meet the emotional demands of those patients and their families, while working long hours with increasing workloads. Daily pressures can lead to decreased morale and low-performing teams, but incorporating laughter and humor into everyday practice can ease distress.

Humor—the good, the bad, the ugly

Humor should be amusing and laughter-provoking for everyone, and when used appropriately it doesn’t require understanding social cues. Humor should lift the spirit and make everyone feel more comfortable. In other words, we should laugh with, rather than laugh at, our coworkers. Avoid sarcasm because it can be misunderstood and often targets others in a negative way. Racist, sexist, ageist, and other forms of discriminating jokes are bad humor and should never be part of workplace interaction. Gags and practical jokes should be used only when your judgment tells you those on the receiving end will find them funny. And always remember to be cognizant of the suitability of the time and place where humor and laughter will occur.

Why so serious?

Laughter is a natural part of life. Infants begin smiling during the first weeks of life and laugh out loud within months of being born. The average preschool child laughs or smiles 400 times a day, and the average 6-year-old laughs or smiles 300 times a day. The sad news, though, is that the average 40-year-old laughs or smiles only four times a day. As adults, we need to raise our laughter quota.

Start by not taking yourself too seriously. While ambitions are noble, being overly serious will weigh you down and reduce your chances of achievement. Levity fosters positivity, optimism, engagement, and successful navigation through the ups and downs of life. When you’re able to laugh at yourself and share your embarrassing moments, you communicate your openness, humbleness, and sense of humor with your team.

Have fun at work

Listen for laughter during your workday and move towards it. More often than not, your coworkers will be happy to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again.

You might even want to recruit some new employees. The positions that need to be filled include Chief Executive Humor Officer, Vice President of Laughter Services, Director of FunRaising, Secretary of Humor, and Laughter Ambassador. And don’t forget to onboard a Levity Leader, whose job it will be to remind others that they’re taking themselves too seriously. (See Invite humor into your workflow.)

Go team

Seeing the humor in all the situations life has to offer is important. Sharing your funny stories with others and having them laugh with you will incorporate humor and laughter into the fabric of your work life, finding it naturally in everything you do. A sense of community and cohesive culture are born when a team laughs out loud and has fun together.

Kara Theal is the director of clinical information systems at Northwell Health in Lake Success, New York.

Selected references

Advisory Board. Health care workers may be the nation’s most stressed employees. February 13, 2014.

Agarwal SK. Therapeutic benefits of laughter. Med Sci. 2014;12(46): 19-23.

Gerloff P. You’re not laughing enough, and that’s no joke. Psychology Today. June 21, 2011.

Kraft TL, Pressman SD. Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychol Sci. 2012;23(11):1372-8.

Stevenson S. There’s magic in your smile – How smiling affects your brain. Psychology Today. June 25, 2012.

1 Comment.

  • Ashley Johnson, RN
    September 22, 2017 9:31 am

    I am new to the field of nursing, as I graduated this past May. I work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at a small town hospital. As you may know, the ICU can be very stressful and busy. I was a nursing assistant in the same unit before I graduated so I have now seen it from both perspectives. I am glad to have read your article because this is something that I believe very strongly in. I have always been told that if you are happy you will never work a day in your life. I have also been recently reminded that when everything is too much or seems to be going wrong, to never forget why you chose nursing. My purpose for this letter is to provide you with more evidence backing your stance.

    I was reading an article by Michele Wojciechowski called “Using Humor with Your Patients” and she is speaking through the eyes of care coordinator and Registered Nurse named Alicia Schwartz. She talks about how she incorporated laughter in caring for her patients and how it helped. She states ““Humor can be very helpful in helping [patients] cope with and adapt so they can continue to live safely and independently in their homes, where they feel comfortable and secure,” explains Schwartz” (Wojciechowski, 2016). Wojciechowski also talks about how laughter sort of lightens the mood and helps the patient not dwell on a diagnosis at that moment or worry about an upcoming test. She talks about how it helps facilitate conversation and a good nurse to patient relationship, which is very important to obtain as a bedside nurse. She also talks about how there is a time and a place for everything and we have to be aware of when is the right time to laugh and when is the right time to be serious.

    Your article focusses more on the importance of laughter with your coworkers and Wojciechowski’s article focusses on laughter and the patient and family perspective. I believe both are very important and it helps a nurse get through a stressful day and not get burned out. I see so many nurses who come to work too serious and I never see them chuckle or show a smile. They are the ones who have the roughest days and don’t mesh well with the team. We have started peer interviews for potential coworkers and it is not, by any means, a serious meeting. It is more of a way for the current employees to interact with them and see their personality and if they will be a good asset to the team. It lets them ask questions that you wouldn’t typically ask your potential director or manager. It has worked so far with everyone who has been through interviews for our unit. We are also starting committees and the one I am most excited about is the social committee. We will be able to talk through ways that will bring us together more as a team and to do things outside of work that will lead us to get to know each other more and improve teamwork. We are also going to talk about ways to improve the moralE during the shifts and ways to recognize people who go above and beyond in a way that is meaningful and shows that we appreciate them.

    Your article has really shed some light on how important it is to laugh and have fun all while doing the job you worked so hard to get. Nursing is hard and some people don’t understand what each of us went through to get those two letters behind our name. Some days we just want to quit, but other days we are reminded why we are doing this. Laughter has always been the best medicine and I support your stance because a good relationship with your coworkers and your patients is what gets you through each day from clock-in to clock-out.

    Thank You,
    Ashley Johnson, RN

Comments are closed.

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